Policeman's binge drinking death in China: One official banquet too far?

The binge drinking death of a policeman at an official banquet in Shenzhen, China, has provoked fresh scrutiny of a culture of heavy drinking. Central and local government authorities are trying to rein in lavish spending on such events.

By , Staff writer

The culture of heavy drinking that rules Chinese officialdom has proved fatal once again, with the binge drinking death of a policeman at an official banquet in the southern city of Shenzhen.

Traffic cop Chen Lusheng’s death by choking follows several similarly deadly incidents elsewhere in China this year, but it has attracted particular attention because his boss claimed that Mr. Chen had died in the line of duty.

Shenzhen traffic bureau chief Xie Feiyong has been suspended indefinitely for classifying Chen as a “martyr,” the official Xinhua news agency reported late Tuesday, but the dead policeman’s family is pressing the government for generous compensation on the grounds that he had been obliged to drink too much.

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Defying repeated government edicts banning lavish and well-watered banquets, Chinese officials are notorious for spending large sums of money to get their guests and themselves uncontrollably drunk.

“A lot of officials believe that drinking is an important way to establish working relationships and to get what they want,” says Li Chengyan, a professor at Peking University’s School of Government. “People may be breaking the rules, but they have to go to banquets to do their jobs.”

$73 billion a year on banquets

Heavy consumption of hard alcohol is a common aspect of business and government functions, where “gan bei,” or “bottoms up,” is the standard toast. Academic researchers have estimated that government officials spend $73 billion a year of public funds on banquets – one-third of what Chinese citizens spend on eating out annually.

The ritual has attracted widespread criticism from ordinary people, and is not even universally popular among officials. “Neither my guests nor I want to get drunk, but we have to play under the unspoken rule,” an anonymous official told the state-run China Daily earlier this year. “We don’t know how to do business otherwise.”

It is not uncommon for such binges to get out of hand. A Communist Party official in the province of Anhui died from alcohol poisoning last month after entertaining business associates, and two other local government officials died after drinking too much in separate incidents earlier this year, according to official media. One of them, a family planning official, was later named an “Excellent Party Member” and given a posthumous award for dying “with honor.”

The central government and local authorities have issued a welter of regulations in recent years seeking to rein in banquets. The State Council, China’s cabinet, ordered last February, for example, that public spending on entertainment this year should be cut by 10 percent from last year’s level.

These rules, however, “have not worked” says Professor Li, because “supervision is weak. The government should do more to enforce the regulations.”

At the same time, he warns, heavy drinking among officials “is a habit that may take a long time to change, and it will be a hard journey.”

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